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Marubeni Deal May Aid Stealthy China Grain Imports

China’s second strategic tie-up with a Japanese trading house may be nominally focused on safeguarding soybean supplies, but the unspoken longer-term aim could be to help Beijing secure low-key corn and wheat imports.

For now, China remains as it has been for centuries, self-sufficient in corn and wheat supplies; it also holds massive state stockpiles able to meet any immediate supply shortages.

But a rise in February wheat imports to above 90,000 tonnes – paltry in global terms, but China’s biggest in three years – has renewed speculation about the day when growing affluence forces the world’s most populous nation to import more grains, all but certain to cause commotion on Chicago’s trading floors.

A co-operation deal between Marubeni Corp. and state-run China Sinograin Oils Corp. comes eight months after leading state-owned trader COFCO teamed up with Itochu Corp. to jointly purchase grains, dairy products and meat.

Ventures like these augment less formal supply arrangements already in place with the likes of Cargill and others, aimed mainly at helping the world’s biggest importer of soybeans secure a steady supply. It became a net importer just a decade ago.

But the latest deals will give Beijing-backed companies the chance to pick up expertise in corn and wheat markets where they have fewer contacts and less experience, potentially helping temper the likely knee-jerk market response to China’s entrance.

“If you are China and you go out all of a sudden to buy, it is going to jack up the prices,” said Jonathan Barratt, managing director of Commodity Broking Services. “But if you are a trading house then that offers you some sort of anonymity in the market.”

The Marubeni-Sinograin deal also comes when global prices of wheat, corn and soybeans have stabilized after dropping from their peaks last year, which analysts say is the best time for long-term deals.

Analysts said China can leverage Marubeni’s presence in the supply market.

“Companies like Cargill and Louis Dreyfus have spent a lot of time and money in building a pipeline of supplies from farmers in the United States and Latin America to customers in China,” said one Singapore-based commodities hedge fund manager.

“So if a Chinese grains player wants to replicate that, a partnership with existing players in the market is quicker and more cost effective than starting to build it yourself.”

PURCHASING POWER

Marubeni, Japan’s fifth-largest trading company, trades 14 million tonnes of mainly wheat, corn and soybeans a year, both imports for Japan as well as supplies for third parties.

It has supply sources largely in North and South America, via tie-ups such as Columbia Grain and ADM and direct contacts with farmers, and is leaving the door open to expanding on the letter of intent it signed this weekend.

“It could lead to a bigger co-operation, but we don’t know at this point,” said Marubeni spokesman Yo Nomura.

The co-operation with Chinese grain firms could also help shore up Japan’s buying power.

“The co-operation has been agreed at a turning point when Japan’s buying power has been declining relative to the rising purchasing power of China over the past few years,” said Nomura.

China’s corn and wheat reserves are a state secret, but analysts put the country’s wheat stocks at 60 million tonnes and corn at around 30 million tonnes.

Despite plentiful stocks China shipped in 92,033 tonnes of wheat in February, making for its biggest imports since March 2006, a proof of unpredictable purchases China could make in the international market.

And the country will spend an extra $10 billion to bulk up its commodity reserves and lift farm support spending by 20 per cent this year, measures that should aid local grain prices and may boost global markets.

China gets most of its soybean supplies from top trading companies such as Cargill, Wilmar, Toepfer and Noble Group. But a formal tie-up with Japanese companies is the first of its kind.

Traders said Sinograin and COFCO will be in a position to use grain-handling facilities built in exporting countries by Japanese firms that earlier bought large quantities of soybeans for domestic consumption.

“Many Japanese trading companies have built facilities, such as ports and storage houses, in producing countries, and such co-operation could help Sinograin have access to these facilities,” said one trading manager with a Japanese trading house.

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